by Clive Kessler
The Malaysian Insider
APRIL 15 — So far it has been, as a friend remarked the other day, “a very American election”.
With its mobilising and symbolic focus on PM Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the GE13 “pre-campaign” has been nothing if not “presidential”.
“Presidential” campaigning: PM Najib and BR1M
If Umno/BN is now a brand, Najib is its face. Its trademark.
Not unlike a certain avuncular colonel and his own certain brand of fried chicken.
And if Umno/Bn now has a strategic approach, it is Najib’s own iconic BR1M.
Umno/Bn now relies upon communicating an irresistible sense of party and government largesse that, in a very personal way, the prime minister distributes and also symbolises.
The outgoing government of the last four years — since Pak Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stood down — has largely placed its trust in, and now entrusted its political fate to, BR1M.
And the BR1M promises keep flowing. Endlessly, it would seem. “Our cup overfloweth,” the government might well say, spilling over its generous brim.
It has been “brim-full” of subtle inducements and beguiling “goodies”.
The election, it seems, will be a referendum on BR1M, and the prime minister will live or die politically on the people’s verdict upon this measure, this key strategic device.
When an election is focused, through one key initiative, upon the fate of the national leader who is uniquely identified with that measure, we may well characterise the campaign as presidential.
Targeting the Malaysian “political market”
But there is more to be said. When the present campaign is typified as “very American”, much more is involved than its presidential style and personalised “symbolics”.
Let us return to the BR1M payments.
These are part of a very sophisticated strategy or political approach.
And the entire approach which the BR1M initiative suggests, and of which it is a part, seems to have a clear “genealogy”, or readily identifiable origins.
It seems directly traceable to the “new approach” to election campaigning that has been pioneered in the US over the last quarter-century — especially and initially but now no longer exclusively by the “political right” — by such innovative political consultants, strategists and “operatives” as Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes and their more recent successors, most notably Karl Rove Jr.
This is the approach that sees not a single nation — “a community of common destiny and shared national fate” — to be addressed, but a series of special interests and constituencies.
A discrepant array of groups that are to be reached, each specifically in its own way: with finely tuned and closely targeted messages, with its own special “tailor-made” policies, and its specifically targeted benefits and promises.
It is an approach that does not presume, nor seek to address, a “nation that is ever in the making”, one continually engaged in the process of discovering and renewing itself, but merely a segmented and fragmented political “market”.
It is an approach that, so to speak, neither hears nor wishes to sing a national anthem voicing widely shared aspirations, but one that is instead eager to respond to a cacophony of discordant voices, all calling out “me , me!” and “remember us!”
“Do not forget us,” they cry out, “do not leave us out of your official gift-giving at this special political festive season!”
And, guided by the consultant political marketers, the politicians — well, some kinds of politician — hear and respond. They do as the clamourers and the clamour-monitors suggest, they do what they are entreated and told to do.
The idea of a “political market”
This is an approach that assumes, and which orients itself towards, a highly differentiated market in which each component or “strategic actor” is little concerned with what is in the interest of “the whole”.
To the “crackpot realists” (to use an expression of C. Wright Mills) who champion this piecemeal approach, such notions as “the common interest” are quite fanciful, even delusional and dangerous.
Those whom they and their preferred strategies address are interested in, and care only about, their own demands, their own insistent question (and the tangible political answers proffered to it!): “what is in this for me, what’s the specific benefit for us over here?”
It is an approach that creates and promotes the very social and political fragmentation, the centrifugal drives, the sectional division of diverging interests that it presumes.
This approach, together with its calculating practitioners, is in the business of promoting a “self-fulfilling prophecy” — serviceable to some including its creators — that becomes real, and may become the dominant reality. But it does so, increasingly, to the neglect, and even at the expense, of any common national purpose and agenda.
It does so since it presumes that that is what human nature is like, and what human nature really and most authentically likes. (And when people say so, they maintain, you can believe it, they are “for real”, since self-interest never lies, deceives or pretends. It is honestly self-regarding. It is never “fake”, it is always trying it best.)
On the other side of the same coin, this approach holds to the view, or conviction, that co-operation and consensus and “the negotiation of differences” — because they do not come easily — are unnatural, while socially “autistic” or heedless self-interest is no mere default position or moral “last resort”, no token of social failure, but natural, commendable and “as good as you can get”. That there is nothing better or higher.
It is therefore an approach that, when faced with the challenge of nation-building, always starts from the assumption — the often unexpressed and suppressed assumption — that the whole can never be more than, or achieve a reconciled accommodation among, the sum of its parts.
So people should not even try to seek any such common purpose, or imagine that one may be identified and realised. Any such exercise must be delusional, “chimerical”, and even dangerous.
Dangerous because, or so the champions of this approach believe, such efforts — even if unsuccessful, and even if they are merely attempted — violate what they hold to be the most basic, sacred and authentic human realities. They interfere with personal preferences and individual choice and so distort market processes.
The limits of this view
What is wrong with this approach?
True, societies are a complex interplay of co-operation and individualism.
And, like the United States, and others in its wake, the more modern societies become, the more individualistic they also are.
We are all caught up, generally most happily, in this dynamic.
It is the dynamic of human emancipation and self-realisation.
And, again true, markets are arenas in which people — even when they are members of larger social aggregates and groups — think and strategise, choose and act, individually, as separate and independent individual agents.
So, in the short run, you can do so-called “retail politics” by treating the members of political society as nothing more than players in a market, even if it is a rather special kind of market called a political market.
Yet there is more involved than just that.
So that approach can be taken only “so far and no further”.
Beyond that point, the idea of the “political market” collapses, becomes dysfunctional and, in practical terms, not helpful.
What we call “political society” these days, even when it has international dimensions and outreach and ramifications, is still largely something that resides, and is accommodated, within states.
And these states are, by and large, what we call “nation-states”.
That is to say, they are identified not so much with foreign imperial masters (who may choose to colour large parts of the world map red, or blue or yellow or green, as was once the case) nor primarily with their former traditional sacred rulers but with their own people as citizens.
Whatever their different historical background, and the diversity of their origins and the various but converging paths by way of which they became citizens, these people are now and together members of what we call, and are generally understood as, “nations”.
That, meaning cohesive and viable national communities, is what these people, or citizens, must together become and create if political society, and with it all social and economic development, are not to collapse.
That is why people these days, even in the age of rampant and unstoppable globalisation, still talk about “nation-building”.
And why, even if its members come into citizenship from differing origins and via different but converging paths, we must speak of them as together “sharing the nation”.
States, their institutional arrangements and resources are the common, shared property of all their citizens, as equal stakeholders in the nation. They are the common birthright and inheritance of all their citizens’ children.
Political markets, citizens, states and nations
What this means, the first implication of this fact, is that there is more to political and national life than merely political marketing. A nation is not just a political market.
It may be that too — sometimes, at certain moments or phases of its own and citizens’ lives — but it is so much more than that.
A nation may at times be a political market, or may be seen and treated as one. That may be one part of what is involved in its common life.
It is the part that the political consultants know, and the part that the campaign strategists who follow and apply the latest “American” technical innovations know how to address.
But that market and those who are involved in it are “subsumed” (or contained and enfolded) within the common life of a nation that finds its expression, its instruments for pursuing common purposes and also its arena for “the negotiation of difference” in state structures and institutions.
So more, much more, is needed in politics, especially in the “election season”, than a good marketing strategy.
The nation: Its story, its common agenda
Transcending, and drawing together, the tangle of individual wills and the clash of group interests of its diverse citizens there must be a sound and viable “national idea”.
And who else but the contending rivals in the election process at fateful moments — an outgoing government that seeks to be returned to power, and a prospective alternative governing group that seeks to replace it — has the obligation and also the wonderful opportunity to make clear what it thinks the national idea is, and how it is to be pursued and ultimately achieved?
Both sides now need to make clear who they are and what they stand for; what they think the nation is and needs and where they think it is heading, or may be intelligently directed; and how what they themselves are and stand for and propose to do will help promote that national idea — in the interest of all the nation’s citizen-members.
Political marketing to the interests of individuals and groups certainly has its place. But its place is within that broader national context.
Within the life of the nation, and attuned to its needs and purposes.
So, yes, BR1M if one must, and “American”-style political marketing too, if one must have it.
But some national conversation, some intelligent dialogue, even some thoughtful contestation between the two opposed sides over the character and purposes of the nation are also, and no less, essential.
Both sides, to use the dreaded postmodernist jargon, need in the next two weeks to spell out, and to argue coherently for, their version of the national “narrative”.
They need to show that their policy commitments and proposals can serve as the enabling mechanisms for the realisation of the nation’s common purpose, as they see and understand it.
That is a major task, an urgent task.
And one that goes far beyond clever, even very subtle, political marketing.
It is the national interest, and a persuasive view of it, that needs now to be promoted, not simple political “products” and enticing messages.
* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.